My hope for 2021 is...
From citizen-led aid to fostering successful mergers, check out TNH readers’ ideas for the future of humanitarianism.
Each year, we ask a wide-ranging group of humanitarians to share their hopes for the year ahead. In 2021, we offer a bit of a twist: readers sharing their visions for what aid might become, their comments submitted in response to the Future of Aid feature (part of our Rethinking Humanitarianism coverage) published late last year.
Their hopes range from more citizen-led initiatives to a push toward greater local procurement of supplies to a focus on preventing conflict (and associated crises) in the first place. Here, in no particular order, are a selection of ideas submitted by readers working around the globe.
(Comments have been edited for clarity and length.)
My hope for 2021 is ...
... Economic cooperation instead of development aid
“It is necessary to work towards an end of development aid.”
Kurt Gerhardt, on behalf of the signatories to the Bonn Memorandum. Former country director of the German Volunteer Service (DED) in Niger, writing from Germany.
The persistence of the development aid industry disregards the dignity and personal responsibility of the people of Africa. And it is a constant violation of the principle of subsidiarity. In the light of the experience of recent decades and out of respect for the capacity of African societies, it is necessary to work towards an end of development aid, and to replace it with normal economic cooperation based on mutual interests.
... NGO mergers
“We lack a central clearinghouse to find the right merger partner, the way an investment bank might function in the private sector.”
David Weiss, CEO, Global Communities, writing from the United States.
I've long been an advocate of mergers as a powerful tool in the shrinking aid environment. Yet it can be hard in the NGO sector, in part because we lack a central clearinghouse to find the right merger partner, the way an investment bank might function in the private sector.
At Global Communities, we overcame those obstacles and successfully merged with Project Concern International earlier this year. Our merger made sense because we found the right partner, the organisations had shared values as well as complimentary areas of expertise and geographic footprints.
But the single most important factor was that both organisations came to the merger from positions of strength. Neither of us was looking for a lifeline. We were each looking for a partner who could help us achieve more than we could alone. Our motto was stronger together to achieve greater scale, and therefore greater impact. And that's a recommendation I would give to anyone considering a merger in the aid sector.
... Citizen-led aid
“Unlike international humanitarianism, these grassroots efforts are not bound by Western notions of human rights and morality.”
Dalton Price, PhD student at Oxford, studying the grassroots, vernacular forms of humanitarianism in Venezuela, writing from the UK.
Until recently, international humanitarian actors have not only overlooked the crisis in Venezuela, a formerly wealthy country, but have also been banned entry by the Venezuelan government. These conditions have led to a humanitarian “vacuum” of sorts, wherein the lack of international humanitarian actors working in the region and insufficient provision of government services has led to a proliferation of local, grassroots, humanitarian actors taking matters into their own hands.
In Venezuela, some of the least suspecting humanitarian actors are now exactly that – humanitarian actors creating “micro-NGOs” of 1-3 people to collect and distribute medications, food supplies, and other essentials to their families, friends, and neighbours. Vast networks of Venezuelans, both those in the country and its diaspora, come together through WhatsApp channels, Facebook groups, GoFundMe accounts, and countless other digital platforms to stockpile and share supplies. These digital infrastructures, in turn, shape lives, define the forms of care, and forge a way forward for local Venezuelans.
Unlike international humanitarianism, these grassroots efforts are not bound by Western notions of human rights and morality nor subject to the same procedures and expectations of our NGOs. And it is in this nonconformity that I find creative promise.
... Solidarity in the face of the climate crisis
“The focus needs to shift to restoring livelihoods in new settings, building on local action, and grassroots responses towards self-sufficiency.”
Dr. Alicia Blancarte, Climate change and environment specialist, and humanitarian worker, writing from Canada.
Longer lasting and repeated disasters are affecting more people and causing massive displacement. There are longer seasons for malaria and dengue. Droughts, floods, land losses, and saltwater intrusion result in disruptions to food production. Epidemics, water scarcity, heat waves, climate impacts leading to conflict – all signal we are entering the Climate Crisis Era.
This era will create refugees for whom home no longer exists or can support life. For the climate-displaced, the focus needs to shift to restoring livelihoods in new settings, building on local action and grassroots responses towards self-sufficiency. Aid interventions can benefit both the displaced and the reception community, facilitating integration and healing climate trauma.
City slums will receive a large portion of the displaced due to rising sea levels, catastrophic weather events, and conflict. They need new models of aid delivery guided by governments, local NGOs, and the community.
We need carbon efficient interventions, moving away from disposable throw-away materials to ones that are durable and locally sourced. Renewable energy, permanent structures, surge-capacity investments in hospitals, clinics, and schools will be needed to sustain communities.
... A mindset shift towards anticipation
“The future of aid is moving away from reacting to crises only when we have evidence of suffering.”
Dunja Dujanović, Early Warning Early Action Lead for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, writing from Italy.
The future of aid is moving away from reacting to crises only when we have evidence of suffering to protecting people ahead of shocks. There is growing evidence that this is an effective and more dignified approach which helps people retain their livelihoods and recover more quickly. Such a systemic shift requires a change of mindset and culture from one that is heavily incentivised towards response to another that is more proactive and forward-looking.
In Bangladesh in May this year, the government evacuated two million people ahead of the impact of Cyclone Amphan. A few months later, the UN acted early to protect people ahead of large-scale flooding thanks to the fastest-ever UN emergency allocation. This should one day be the norm rather than an exception.
... An embrace of equity-based design
“The programme design process needs to be equitable; otherwise, the outcome never will be.”
Jessica Oddy, Education in emergencies researcher, writing from the UK.
COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted that we as a sector cannot remain silent nor non-reflective of our practices when systemic racial and intersectional inequalities continue to be part of society and of the humanitarian ecosystem. Like traditional design thinking processes, humanitarian organisations typically consult affected populations, but programmes are still designed – and decisions made – behind closed doors, often by technical experts far removed from the context. Equity-based design, with its origins in education social justice in the US, challenges this notion of expertise. One example of a better way is called EquityxDesign, which calls for acknowledging historical context, radical inclusion, ceding power, making the invisible visible, speaking to the future and process as product.
Simply put, the programme design process needs to be equitable; otherwise, the outcome never will be. Arguably, racism and inequity are products of design and therefore can be redesigned. Equity-based design thinking offers the humanitarian sector an alternative way of thinking, doing, and being for system-wide change by centring those at the margins and acknowledging and adopting strategies to mitigate the impact of power and privilege throughout the programme cycle.
... A competitive aid marketplace
“Challenge NGOs to improve quality and service delivery.”
Elizabeth Robinson, International education and development specialist, writing from Jordan.
Provide aid recipients with vouchers (or just cash) and invite NGOs to compete for their “business”. By giving individuals affected by crisis the power to choose which services to use (or not), we can create a competitive marketplace for aid services. This would challenge NGOs to improve quality and service delivery and allow the “customer” to give reviews and feedback on a public platform, similar to Yelp.
In my recent role with MAGENTA, an SBCC consulting firm, we designed a smartphone app through which Afghan citizens will be able to submit feedback on their experience accessing government services and also see others’ reviews. The app specifically focuses on citizens’ experiences of corruption, and will be rolled out in 2021. This model could be used as part of larger efforts to encourage NGOs (and their donors) to be more accountable to aid recipients – and contribute to a needed power shift in the sector.
... A move toward speaking out against injustice
“Aid agencies, whatever their specialty, must consider advocacy against inequality as part of the humanitarian principle.”
Tahir Ahmad, Head of humanitarian operations for Humanity First International, writing from the UK.
The neoliberalist practices of corporations and many governments have led to a sharp rise in inequality and injustice. The structural violence enabled by these practices is leading to serious unrest and preventable disasters. Aid agencies, whatever their specialty, must consider advocacy against inequality as part of the humanitarian principle; raising their voices to tackle injustice wherever it is found. A delicate balance would need to be found with issues of neutrality on a case-by-case basis. However, in silencing oneself against systemic failings at the root of many complex issues, we consign ourselves to merely treat symptoms of harmful policy.
... A commitment to procure supplies locally
“The sector has become almost defined by logistics systems set up 25 or more years ago.”
Andrew Lamb, Innovation lead for Field Ready, writing from the UK.
In the last 25 years, the technological and manufacturing capabilities and the skills available in many of the places that humanitarians work have completely transformed. But aid procurement has not. What is needed – and is starting to happen – is a move towards local procurement of aid supplies in a more meaningful way. The sector has become almost defined by logistics systems set up 25 or more years ago, which are now so entrenched that the idea of local procurement of aid supplies is a paradigmatic challenge.
This model can build on the localisation, cash and resilience agendas, and move countries off a dependency on aid. Twenty-five years ago, the sector was dumping food aid on local markets, without considering the effects this had on local farmers. While we’ve shifted this practice, we haven’t learned the lessons in non-food aid supplies yet.
... Aid recipients take the driver’s seat
“Humanitarian aid will only achieve its mission by ensuring a shift from utopian and top-down programmes.”
Giorgia Volpe, Program Development Officer for COOPI, writing from Nigeria.
Humanitarian aid will only achieve its mission by ensuring a shift from utopian and top-down programmes to tangible and homegrown improvements. In other words, humanitarian aid will be successful only after the recipients of aid are granted the driver's seat.
One way to accomplish this is by setting up and building the capacity of Community Resilience Groups (CRGs), who – in close collaboration with small-scale farmers, young entrepreneurs, and other local stakeholders – can pave context-specific development pathways which meet the immediate needs of the most vulnerable, address the underlying drivers of conflict, and strengthen the local capacity to cope with long-term conflict and climate-driven stresses. For example, if conflict arises between pastoralists and farmers due to competing access to water resources, the CRGs could play a crucial mediation role by jointly determining the water access points or irrigation systems without external interference. As a result, the natural resources management guided by the CRGs would build trust and cooperation between divergent groups by actively engaging community members, thus taking the local lead in relieving inter-communal tensions and boosting economic productivity.
... A choice for peace
“The prevention of conflict is a political choice.”
Jamie Williamson, Executive Director, International Code of Conduct Association, writing from Switzerland.
It could be argued that in most contemporary armed conflicts, the role of humanitarians is simply reduced to limiting the consequences of hostilities and injecting a sense of humanity amid the horrors of war. Undeniably, humanitarian action and encouraging greater respect for international humanitarian law and human rights can have a positive impact on peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts. Yet preventing conflict cannot be resolved through humanitarian action alone.
The prevention of conflict is a political choice, requiring strong leadership at the national, regional, and international levels. Without such leadership, which, internationally, should sit with the UN Security Council, humanitarians will continue to play catch-up, picking up the pieces and bearing witness to the violent destruction of lives and communities.
It will take time, though, for the international community to grapple with these challenges and reconcile their differences. And as long as there is a risk that conflict prevention efforts fail, I would urge renewed and greater focus on at least two key areas going forward.
First, we need to develop a better understanding and oversight of the roles and responsibilities of private non-state actors in armed conflicts and high-risk environments. Libya, Mozambique, Syria, Central African Republic, and Nagorno-Karabakh are just some of the recent examples of contexts where “private actors”, mercenaries, proxies, and military contractors have been added to the mix of entities driving conflict dynamics. Yet, unless issues of transparency, accountability, and attribution are addressed, humanitarian concerns risk being exacerbated.
Secondly, we should not give up on accountability and ending impunity for war crimes. There is a need for renewed efforts to hold all perpetrators of war crimes responsible for their actions, including but not limited to those political and military leaders whose strategies and decisions facilitated or led to violations. For this to happen, international criminal jurisdictions such as the ICC, national courts, and specialised war crimes chambers must strive to work in a complementary and purposeful manner.
... Pooling resources to create value
“What if the humanitarian sector worked through the tensions between competition and collaboration toward a sense of ‘coopetition’?”
Jean-Baptiste Lamarche, Logistics and Information Systems Director, Action Contre la Faim (ACF), writing from France.
As needs continue to rise, and the funding gap remains at around 45 percent, humanitarian collaboration is essential. Humanitarians compete for funding, for recruitment, but better collaboration in procurement and logistics can create wins across the board, creating economies of scale and decreasing lead times for vulnerable people to receive aid. What if the humanitarian sector worked through the tensions between competition and collaboration toward a sense of “coopetition”? We in the humanitarian logistics community believe that with a structured collaboration stimulating the pooling of resources, we could create a lot of value, significantly increasing the impact of aid.
...Early action to prevent conflict
“Regional organisations, CSOs, and international actors have a role to play in advocating for early action and calling for the prevention of conflict.”
Ledet Teka Befekadu, Humanitarian, peace, and security specialist, writing from Ethiopia.
Conflict has long been a key driver of humanitarian crises, especially in Africa. The African Union and regional economic communities have strong capacity for early warning, but there is a gap when it comes to early action. Regional organisations, CSOs (civil society organisations), and international actors have a role to play in advocating for early action and calling for the prevention of conflict. Political will is key in finding a solution as ”there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian crises”. Humanitarian response is more reactive in its approach but should invest more in prevention, especially in how to address the resource gap in humanitarian response.